Chef Emma Bengtsson is understated in personality but not on the plate. The Swedish born chef moved to New York to work at the Aquavit restaurant in 2010, she was only the second female chef in the States to win two Michelin stars and her food is some of the sharpest Swedish cuisine around - yet she describes her cooking style as ‘simple’, she hates to go overboard with ingredient combinations and she really just wants to cook some delicious food. In her own words, “we’ve been cooking for centuries and you might have one lucky chance in your career to find one new cool combination. I just want to do good food, I’m not trying to waste tonnes of hours every week for mission impossible.”
Bengtsson arrived at Aquavit to start a role as pastry chef, fulfilling a lifelong dream, “I came the day after my birthday, I always said before I turn 30 I’m going to move to New York.” Aquavit had been open since 1987, had been the springboard for numerous chefs, including Marcus Samuelsson, and was the only modern Nordic restaurant in the U.S at the time. Any young pastry chef would jump at the chance to leave Sweden and move to the Big Apple, but Bengtsson nearly didn’t reply to the initial job offer. “I got a message through Facebook and I didn’t think it was true because that week I’d been speaking with my co-workers telling them how much I wanted to move to New York, I thought it was them joking with me. I didn’t actually respond for about a week.”
Left: Swedish Sliders. Right: Corn Summer.
Eventually the chef wrote back and quickly left her position at one of Sweden’s most historical restaurants, Operakällaren, to accept the job at Aquavit. In 2013, the restaurant received its first star and in 2014, Bengtsson was asked by the owner, Håkan Swahn, to switch roles, refresh the savoury knowledge she had learned during three years at culinary school in Sweden and take over the position as executive chef.
“The transition was very hard for the first six months. The owner of the restaurant decided I should move, I was happy in pastry, I wasn’t sure I should do it. I always had this idea of chefs in my head as these crazy people who are always creating these new ideas, I’ve always been so structured working in pastry, I didn’t think I could do it. He said, “at least do it until we find someone” but, to be honest, I don’t think he ever looked.”
Swahn had seen something in his creative pastry chef and his intuition paid off when, just a few months later, the restaurant received its second Michelin star - an achievement shared by only one other female chef in America: Dominique Crenn.
Left: Huckleberry Fall. Right: Gravlax Fall.
At the end of 2017, Aquavit celebrated its 30th anniversary with a sparkling celebration that saw Bengtsson reinterpret many of the restaurant’s classic dishes. “They’d been saving all these scrap books and I’d been going through and looking at these old dishes, seeing the hits and dishes that people would travel for back in the day. I printed out the first menu here from 87 and I saw that we still have those flavours now on the menu." Instead of trying to change this, to desperately alter things or to bring in wacky, new flavour combinations, Bengtsson celebrates the history of Aquavit and Swedish cuisine in her menus. Turbot, a favourite fish in Sweden, is paired perfectly with sunchoke, caviar and sickle pear. Salmon, perhaps more loved than Turbot, is done as a classic gravlax but it's paired with horseradish panna cotta, compressed apple, brioche crumble and trout roe. Dishes, like most of the chef's creations, that pop vividly on the plate with colours, techniques, textures, tastes and traditions.
Staying rooted in these traditions is a deliberate decision by Bengtsson, she would actually like to see more Nordic chefs take a step backwards before looking for constant newness. "For a little while, especially with the New-Nordic coming up, everyone got so focused on having everything look the same and look perfect, and be new... There’s not really any Swedish restaurants in Sweden anymore. I think everything changed when the New-Nordic thing came out and our cuisine became so big in other countries, we kind of gave up on it back home and started doing every other cuisine you can find, it was so hard to find Swedish food."
Left: Turbot and sunchoke. Right: Scallop crudo and blood orange.
Speaking about the history of Aquavit and hearing Bengtsson's views on the 500-year history of Swedish cuisine, it feels like the 'new' should be removed from the word Nordic. "How is New-Nordic new?", is a question asked by the chef and it's obvious why. In 1987, New Yorkers were travelling for plates of the very same gravlax paired with many of the same ingredients still served at Aquavit today, for the same acidic notes of berries revered at the likes of Noma and for many of the same preserved tastes associated with New-Nordic cooking. If Aquavit's Artic Circle dessert is anything to go by, a dish sat and evolved on the restaurant's menu for 30-years, New Yorkers have actually been dining on variations of the same Nordic flavours now for three decades.
Bengtsson would actually like to see her fellow Swedish chefs step further back into their culinary history and traditions. "I would like to see us go backwards a little, instead of forwards. You see it more and more with Magnus Nilsson and Daniel Berlin in the South, they’re actually looking backwards to what we did when we didn’t have all this power, electric, all that - how did we cook back in those days? A lot of that is coming back more and more, it’s hard to do here in the middle of New York but I think they were onto something back in those days."
The original Artic Circle dessert top left, the evolution and modern Artic Bird's Nest shown below. The foundation of flavour remains the same: presentation, technique and style are transformed.